Not so long ago, Jairam Ramesh and his Ministry of Environment and Forests were being pilloried by industrialists and the business establishment while being cheered by environmentalists. Finally, it seemed, there was someone unafraid of consequences and determined to do what his portfolio demands. Business satraps howled that he was choking development. The environmental lobby retaliated, pointing out that environmental butchery could not possibly be ‘development’.
Ramesh is free of taint. There are no questions about his personal integrity. But his decisions tell another story: of a ministry hobbled by money pressures from other quarters, of a man under severe pressure, of a ministry that has failed its remit. In a report that is perhaps the more scathing for its restrained language, the Guardian demonstrated how Ramesh’s ministry has rejected just six projects since he took charge in 2009, with clearance rate of nearly 95 per cent.
The working of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife is a grim illustration of how our environment is being railroaded. Wildlife and old-growth forests are the two areas that must have a hands-off policy. The NBWL thinks otherwise. At its 22nd meeting on 25 April 2011 in New Delhi, its overstuffed Standing Committee — 40 people, 28 of them invitees — considered roughly 70 items. A very large number of proposals were received only three days before, on 22 April, leaving no time to study documents or make any kind of informed decision. Thirty nine proposals were listed under the agenda caption of “any other item with the permission of the Chair”, typically a residuary agenda item meant for routine, non-controversial matters. Non-government sitting members (some are reputed conservationists and environmentalists) protested at this surreptitious sneaking in of major proposals. They were ignored.
What were these items? A rough sample: destroying 52 acres of forests in the Hazaribagh Wildlife Sanctuary for the widening of NH33; a proposal to ‘repair’ and ‘maintain’ existing National Highways through national parks and sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh; irrigation projects in the Chambal Sanctuary; drawing underground water from the Son Gharial Sanctuary; installing a ropeway in the Ralamandal Sanctuary in MP; upgrading the 2-lane highway through the Kanha National Park; electrical transmission lines through the Mt Abu Wildlife Sanctuary; dam-building on the Parvan river involving the Shergarh Sanctuary in Rajasthan (which will submerge 82 sq kms of the sanctuary and destroy nearly 2 lakh trees); allowing Idea Cellular to lay a fibre optic cable through the Sawai Mansingh Wildlife Sanctuary; and more. The ‘regular’ agenda items including the denotification of 14 ha of the Radhanagri Sanctuary, diverting 7 ha of forest for a ropeway to the Ambaji Temple in the Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary (proposed by a private operator, this is the death knell of the critically endangered long-billed vulture) and the construction of roads in the Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram.
Most of these projects were cleared. The meeting lasted just over two hours. It was chaired by Jairam Ramesh.
Something is very, very wrong here. Everything points to a determined assault on that most fragile aspect of our environment: our wildlife and its habitat. Particularly worrying are the number of projects proposed in, around and through National Parks and Sanctuaries. These are legally designated areas of wildlife and habitat protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. The law sets standards of what can and cannot be done in these areas, reflecting a wider public policy. This violation of an environmental law, in letter and spirit, is being actively encouraged, by the very body that is supposed to protect our sanctuaries and national parks.
Every one of these proposals violates the ‘precautionary principle’, a legal rule that requires ‘informed prudence’, the anticipation of environmental harm and loss. Project proponents must, in the face of scientific uncertainty, establish that their proposals are environmentally benign. The precautionary principle has been with us at least since 1982 when the UN General Assembly adopted it and is part of an international treaty since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. In every single proposal before the NBWL this principle has been abandoned in favour of ‘necessity’, an altogether more dubious standard with no foundation in environmental law.
The NBWL, when conservationists of the calibre of Salim Ali, Kailash Sankhala and others served on it, was instrumental in framing strong strategies for wildlife conservation. On Jairam Ramesh’s watch it has become a farce, and the non-government representatives, though illustrious and committed in their own right, are reduced to putting in dissents.
Ramesh’s statement that he has been under pressure to overlook environmental violations and clear projects is unconvincing. He, and those who pull his strings, are answerable for the continuing rape of our wildlife and its habitat.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
NBWL looking the other way?
Something is very wrong when the National Board for Wildlife clears 70 agenda items in two-and-a-half hours.
Posted On Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 11:27:08 PM